Category: Swimming

How to swim faster and still loose a butterfly race?

There are (at least) 4 reasons why somebody could loose a butterfly race in spite of swimming faster.

1. Butterfly has a specific velocity pattern. It suggests that horizontal velocity of the center of mass of a professional swimmer can vary from 1.5m/s to 2.2m/s, depending on the phase of the stroke. Have a look at the excerpt from “Swimming Fastest” book by Ernest W. Maglischo below:

What it practically means is that the center of mass of one swimmer swimming next to another one with the same speed but totally opposite phase could go forward and backwards relative to other swimmer’s center of mass by as much as 13cm.

In the chart above, blue and red lines show velocities of two swimmers in totally opposite phases of butterfly stroke. They are simplified as sine lines. Velocities are read on the left axis. Green line shows relative distance between these two swimmers. In the beginning, blue swimmer is 13cm behind the red one (read on the right vertical axis). Half way through the stroke, blue swimmer overtakes and gets into lead by 13cm. By the end of the full cycle, red swimmer is again in the lead by 13cm and so on.

So, if the timing devices were so sophisticated that swimmers could literally swim through the finish line (like runners do) and device would be able to detect when center of mass crosses the line, it would still be great portion of luck involved in all this. Unfortunate phase of the stroke could cost a swimmer around 7 hundredths of a second compared to the perfect timing case. I translated 13.4cm from the graph above to 7/100s by assuming average speed to be around 2m/s during the race.

2. There is no perfect timing device that I mentioned in previous point. Swimmers must touch the finish wall with both of their hands. On top of velocity pattern, swimmers are facing another “disturbance”. If they finish the arm stroke too close to the wall, they don’t have time/space to do another one, so they have to glide through the water. Gliding is decelerating, meaning velocity becomes slower and slower. It means that the swimmer who is behind but is lucky to finish his arm stroke far enough from the wall could have enough time for the last stroke, while the leading one could be maybe too close to the wall for another stoke and all this gives enormous advantage to the second swimmer to overtake the leading one who would be gliding to the finish wall.

Let’s assume that there is a distance from the finish wall that defines whether a swimmer will go for the last stroke or not. If a swimmer finishes the recovery after this point, he/she goes into gliding. Otherwise, a swimmer goes for another stroke. Let’s consider a limit case where blue swimmer is just little bit after this point and continues in gliding, while the red one is just a little bit before this point and goes for another stroke.

Since I have no idea how strong deceleration is during gliding through the water, I assumed that the speed will remain constant. This assumption will make the difference even smaller than in reality. From the diagram above, we can conclude that the red swimmer, who had a chance for another stroke, finished the race 36cm in front of blue swimmer. Since the blue swimmer was gliding at 1.5m/s towards the wall, it would take him additional 25 hundredths of a second to finish the race.

3. That’s not all. Rule says that swimmer must touch the wall with both hands simultaneously. In other words, swimmer must be touching the wall with both hands in order to be considered finishing the race. But no device today can detect if the swimmer touched the wall with only one or both hands. Basically, first hand that touches the wall will stop the clock. Have you ever tried to measure how taller you are with one hand raised up compared to both hands next to each other. Try to stand by the wall, facing it, with both arms raised up next to each other. Let someone stick the tape just above your fingers. Then keeping both arms straight up, lean your shoulders in order to make one arm “longer”. Again, let someone stick the tape just above the fingers of the “longer” arm. I managed to make 4cm difference. And I’m quite small compared to professional butterfliers. They definitely have broader shoulders, so they should be able to make even more difference. But even my 4cm of difference would mean at least 2 hundredths of a second difference. And nobody’s eye is capable of noticing one arm touching 2/100s before the other one.

4. And last point, the pads at the moment cannot detect touch of a hand unless there is certain pressure exerted by the hand on the pad. It means that there is a lag between the actual (optical) touch and mechanical detection of that touch. In 100m final butterfly in Beijing Olympics, Cavic touched the wall first (according to an Omega person), but Phelps won by 1/100s. So, pad itself could make a difference of at least 1/100s and maybe even more.

In conclusion, what’s the point in timing butterfly swimming races with precision of 1/100s when all four points above could make much more difference. I remember one technician of Omega saying that they can’t make measuring in 1/1000s because it’s difficult to make a pool to be of perfect length, but this statement goes into perspective compared to all four points above.

In recent race in London, 200m butterfly, Phelps lost to Le Clos by 5/100s although he was leading all the time. He was just so badly affected by points 1 and 2 that he lost an obvious advantage and a chance to win 3rd consecutive Olympic gold in this discipline.

But 4 years before that, in Beijing Olympics in 2008, Cavic “lost” to Phelps by 1/100s in the final race of 100m butterfly. Cavic lost some time due to unfortunate stroke phase (points 1 and 2), he had to do a long glide to the wall, while Phelps had time for one more stroke. But that didn’t cost Cavic gold medal. Phelps touched the wall much earlier with his right hand (spot bent fingers on his right hand and stretched ones on his left hand), which is against the official FINA rules and could bring significant advantage (point 3 above). Asymmetry of Phelps’ last stroke is quite obvious in the following two photos of Associated Press (link to Baltimoresun blog): Photo 1, Photo 2.

But that was not enough to beat Cavic neither. Cavic “lost” at the end because even the 4th point was “against” him. An Omega person admitted a year after the race (follow the link above) that Cavic did touch first, but with the smaller pressure (since he was gliding) than Phelps (who had enough time for the last stroke) who swam into the wall in full speed and although touching the first, it took more time for Cavic to exert minimum pressure to the pad in order to stop the clock. What an “unfortunate sequence of events” for Milorad Cavic.

Timing in butterfly is at the moment very far from perfect. Maybe in future, somebody will come up with a better solution than today’s mechanical pads. Until then, we will unfortunately watch many races where slower swimmers will beat the faster ones.

Update 21/04/2015: Couple of days ago, Mark Spitz, in his interview to Express Sports UK, shed more light on above discussed Beijing 2008 100m butterfly final race.

Like Father Like Daughter

We worked hard on the extra second kick, now we need to remove that extra arm stroke :)

Improving Butterfly Technique (part 7)

High hips

Some months ago, I was so desperate since I couldn’t push my hips above the water (after first kick). In fact, it (hips up) was happening occasionally, but most of the time they would come up very close to the surface, but wouldn’t break it. Then, completely by chance, I did a video of myself where I swim fly with much higher pace than usually. Usually, my stroke cycle is longer than 2 seconds, sometimes even 3 seconds when I swim really slowly. I knew it was much slower than race pace which is slightly above 1 second per stroke cycle. So, I made a video and I was very surprised. My hips were so unexpectedly moving nicely (for my standards) above the water :).

So, I had to come up with some conclusions. My first guess was that there was a relationship between the time distance between the second and the first kick and hips height. During the recovery, swimmer’s center of mass reaches its highest point. In this phase of the stroke, especially if it’s a no breathing one, arms, head and shoulders are above the water surface, so buoyancy is weaker than the gravity force, which means that at some moment, center of mass will start falling down. Usually it happens during recovery, that’s why recovery cannot be slowed down significantly. This falling down will not happen in a moment, it is a gradual process. And it will even continue, by inertia, below the equilibrium point. So, if we wait for too long, center of mass could dive deep and we wouldn’t be able to raise our hips above the water surface. But if we kick while we didn’t sink completely yet, we could still have a chance to put our hips above.
This also can explain why it’s much easier to keep the hips high when swimming only with legs. Or one arm drill. When swimming one arm drill, only one arm is out of water, half of head, one shoulder, plus extended arm can create some upforce as well by moving it downwards together with the upper body, or even relative to the upper body if we need more help. It’s harder with the arm next to the body, since it can’t create upforce in that position, unless moved in the opposite direction than during the real stroke.

But this theory doesn’t stand since I learnt how to swim butterfly and lift my hips above the water even when swimming very slow pace. In this “drill” I try to emphasize hips breaking the surface by stopping the moment when they are above the surface. I can even feel it on my lower back when I break the surface.

Talking about slow pace butterfly, I gradually came up with a version of butterfly with slightly modified timing that could literally be swum effortlessly for very long time. This version of butterfly allows even for the recovery to be prolonged. It allows for the swimmer to highly concentrate on every single part of the stroke. And, what is very important, it’s very easy.

This is the same exercise underwater:

The point is to take the arms slowly out of the water after the head is already back into the water. So, there is no moment when both head and arms are above the water which keep our buoyancy in “good” range. Recovery could be very slow too. Second kick is very close to the first one. Basically, both of them happen while the arms are fully extended in gliding position. There is a variation when gliding is quite short and second kick happens almost at the right time, which is slightly harder. Head goes out of water while arms are doing underwater stroke, thus giving necessary lift for the head.

I experimented also with another version of this exercise, with two first kicks. First first kick happens when head enters the water, the second first kick happens when arms enter the water. There is only one second kick. It’s harder since first first kick brings the upper body down (since there are no extended arms to prevent it), so recovery somehow starts with shoulders little bit deeper in the water than usually. Although it could be good exercise for shoulders flexibility :)

In conclusion, it could be that all of above have something to do with how high hips go. Firstly, if we don’t go too high above the water when breathing, we will sink less afterwards. So, soft head and arms entry is very helpful in that aspect. Secondly, if the pace is high, body doesn’t have time to sink as much as during the low pace butterfly. Thirdly, most probably, lower back flexibility helps it a bit. And what I think helped me a lot was my shallow water drills since they taught me how to swim softly. Shallow water exercises taught me how not to kick too deep (with legs), how to “jump back” into the water softly and how to swim butterfly (almost) effortlessly.

Improving Butterfly Technique (part 6)

It’s been awhile since I posted last time. Although I haven’t been updating my blog, I’ve been practicing my butterfly very hard :D. I managed to make my goal from last birthday and swam 200m fly in one go ;). It kind of looked like mission impossible only a month ago and then suddenly, something clicked and I’m now on the way of being able to swim butterfly almost like freestyle, with little effort. Basically, I learnt how to swim butterfly slowly, which was almost impossible before. Simply, my butterfly was much faster than my freestyle and I couldn’t swim it slower. The fact is that I can swim freestyle and keep my heart rate around 100bpm, while my heart rate for butterfly was always around 150-160bpm after 50-75m. Now, I can swim it (butterfly) 100m and stay around 130bmp.

What made a big change were my shallow water drills. I swam butterfly (and freestyle) in only knee deep water (45cm – 18 inches) in the sea. It definitely promotes high elbow position and it prevents you from doing too much vertical body movements. It also restricts the depth of leg kicks, making the overall style much smoother. Here’s a video:

There is an underwater video as well. It’s a pity that sand gets lifted up by turbulence, so it looks like I’m always scratching the bottom. Although it does happen sometimes (rarely), it provides negative feedback that arms are going too deep. It’s also noticeable how my hips sink much less on non-breathing cycle than on the breathing one.

My opinion is that swimming in shallow water:

1. forces you to keep high elbow position, as seen in this video. Otherwise, you would have hit the bottom with your hands.

2. prevents you from using too deep kicks. Again, you would otherwise start hitting the bottom with your feet.

3. promotes going forward instead of going down on hands entry. Otherwise, you would hit the bottom with your chest, or maybe even with your face.

Improving Butterfly Technique (part 5)

Butterfly in pieces

In this part of my series “Improving Butterfly Tecnique”, I will post some underwater videos of different variations of partial fly swimming that I occasionally experiment with. Since I’m just a beginner, I must stress that I’m not trying to make my posts educational. They are merely my swimming training journal and anyway, I most probably don’t do them completely correctly.

  1. Vertical dolphin kick
  2. I saw actually Phelps doing this during one of his trainings. I think it’s a nice workout for quads.

    Here I’m doing it with Arena Power Fins:

    And here without fins:

    I’m probably overpronouncing it in the videos above and doing too much of a body movement. I will try to do it with smaller amplitude and maybe higher frequency.

  3. Horizontal dolphin kick
    1. Underwater dolphin kick
      As far as I know about underwater dolphin kicking, there is no first and second kick, all the kicks are the same and they are more like first butterfly kick, there is bending in hips on downbeat.
    2. Back dolphin kick
      This is another one that I saw from Phelps. I find it very intense for abs and hamstrings. Here is a video of both underwater dolphin kick and back dolphin kick. My camera settings were wrong, hence bad white balance:
    3. Fly with no arms
      This is yet another option for swimming fly with legs only. I do it in two ways. One is with arms extended in front and the other one is with arms next to my body. There is an above the water footage of the first variant in one of my previous posts. Anyway, here is the video of these two styles.

      In previous “drill”, there is little support for arms, so most probably that’s the reason why I still bend hips even during second kick. Legs kick itself tends to bend the upper body counter clockwise (when watched from left) – chest down, hips up. This might be counteracted by arms pushing downwards, since this movement tends to turn upper body in oposite direction. I think this could be “simulated” with kickboard (hold by hands) as addition to “drill” above.
  4. Fly with no legs
    In this video I (try to) swim butterfly without using my legs. I tend to relax them as much as possible. Usually, first couple of strokes are not that good, but as the time goes, I manage to concentrate more and exclude legs completely. I noticed that my hips stop sinking once I manage to relax my hips:

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